Thursday, July 24, 2014

Valuable Lessons Learned

[Breaking News: Indefatigable blogger Kevin Tipple has words about The Shamus Sampler 2 on his blog, Kevin’s Corner. “Are they good words?” you ask. Do you think I’ll call it out if they weren’t? Really? The questions you guys ask, I have to wonder about you sometimes.

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No education is ever wasted. It’s rare that something learned in one discipline fails to transfer, though it may have to be examined from a different angle. All of my formal education is in music, yet it has served me well in multiple careers, most notably as a writer.

The best teacher I ever had happens to be the best trumpet player I know. Charlie Schlueter was Principal Trumpet of the Boston Symphony when I studied with him. He taught me more about music, and things that sounded like music but weren’t, than anyone I ever met.

What struck me first was the day he said in a lesson, “No one can teach you anything.” He didn’t mean me personally, though it must have seemed like it at times. His point was that everything we learn, we figure out for ourselves. A teacher’s role is to suggest avenues based on their experience and judgment of the student’s gifts, warn against pitfalls, try different methods of explanation, and to encourage when the inevitable roadblocks arise. Everything is learned by the individual through trial and error, perfected by repetition.

Now that he had my attention, anything went. Here are three that stuck with me most, as applied to writing:

Take time off. When asked if he wrote every day, William Golding once said, “Yes, when I’m writing.” Musicians are notorious for practicing until they’re numb; writers count words obsessively.  I became a better player near the end of my career, when my schedule required some time away from the horn. My writing improved when I decided to take off a couple of times a year, as much as was practical over the summer and the holidays. Not only does it recharge my batteries, it keeps my daily routine from becoming flabby, as I had now have self-imposed, if soft, deadlines.

Give yourself permission to miss. Charlie meant notes. Playing to be “correct” precludes beauty. Hitting every note on the page is not music, just as the printed sheet is not music: it’s the map that shows where the music is. Those who try to create a great performance rather than settle for ordinary will sometimes overstep. That’s fine, pick your spots where you have to play safe, and go for it whenever possible. When writing, push the envelope. It won’t always work—that’s what drafts and editors are for—but that’s where the improvements are.

There is such a thing as “good enough.” Charlie and I were working on the first movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony, a big brass climax with repeated high Gs leading up to a high C. This was not in my wheelhouse—I had a nice sound, not much in the way of chops—and I routinely missed the C. We worked it a bit—Charlie “gave me permission” to miss the C, and I nailed it. We both sat there for a few seconds before he gave me one of my two greatest compliments as a musician: “I can’t play it any better than that. Now do it again to lock it in.”

And I shit the bed on the C.

Charlie gave me a look and said, “Couldn’t leave it alone, could you? Had to make it better. You could’ve won auditions playing it like the other time. That was good enough.”

As writers who may redraft, we are all prone to try to over-improve things. Learn when what you have is as good as you can write it. Maybe it’s not as good as James Lee Burke. (It won’t be.) Learn to accept what’s good enough, and learn it well, because no one can teach you.


Nicholas Bruner said...

Thanks, this is something I definitely need to hear. Especially give yourself permission to miss. Almost invariably, my (thankfully infrequent) periods of writer's block come from a quiet but nagging sense of perfectionism. Better to strike out swinging than waiting for the perfect pitch.

Dana King said...

Another valuable insight comes from Stephen King. (I think. I can't find the quote now, but it sounds like something he would say.) Writer's block is what happens when you try to be a better writer than you are. Some get upset when I say that, but it's not meant as an insult. Anyone can fall prey to it. You, me, John Irving, Hemingway. Trying to do more than the current level of talent can accomplish will lock one up, regardless of the level of talent.